The Four Reasons Your Campus Should be Offering Prior Learning Assessment CreditMatt Bergman | Program Director and Research Faculty Member, University of Louisville
There are over 36 million adults with some college and no degree. Couple that with a declining population of high school graduates over the next 20 years and you have a recipe for innovative approaches to fuel the enrollment goals of America’s colleges and universities of the future. The relevance of adult learners to the viability of many institutions is becoming increasingly evident. This fierce competition for student tuition dollars is poised to breed new economic realities that also influence academic programs. Consequently, Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) has the potential to re-engage a dormant student population waiting for an opportunity to finish a long-held goal started last year or long ago.
PLA is a process that colleges and universities use to evaluate college-level knowledge, skills and abilities gained outside the confines of the classroom for academic credit (CAEL, 2010). Most PLA efforts provide constructivist and narrative storytelling approaches, which help increase self-awareness, self-efficacy, career identity, and goal orientation. Portfolio development for PLA is becoming a more readily used form of demonstrated mastery of college-level subject matter expertise, but it is also still met with wide skepticism from a range of faculty and administrators.
The two primary forms of PLA include course-specific assessment (test-out) and the broader portfolio form. In course-specific PLA, adult learners can test-out of courses via challenge exams or take College Level Examination Program (CLEP) or DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST) tests that are broadly accepted by most institutions. If students are able to achieve a certain score in the requisite exam, they are exempted from those courses and awarded college credit toward their program of study. The second form of prior learning assessment is the portfolio compilation. Students eligible for elective or major-specific courses credit assemble documents to demonstrate competency in a specific area of knowledge that is deemed college-level equivalency. Typical content of a portfolio includes a statement of goals, learning chronology (resume, learning chart, autobiography), learning narrative, competency statements that match learning outcomes. Student also include supporting documentation to validate that the learning has actually occurred (Colvin, 2012). Knowledge acquired in non-college instructional programs, military training, civic engagement, volunteer service and employment is evaluated through a structured PLA class or guided process that documents college-learning outcomes achieved outside the confines of university walls. PLA recognizes and legitimizes significant learning in which adults have engaged in many parts of their lives (CAEL, 2000). Below are four truths about PLA that are aimed at addressing skepticism from faculty and administrators.
- Increased Graduation Rate and Pace to Graduation
It has been empirically proven that PLA increases graduation rate and pace to graduation. A 48-institution study conducted by CAEL in 2010 showed that graduation and persistence/retention rates are 2.5 times higher for students with PLA credit than for those without. Also, among 62,475 in the study, students saved an average of between 2.5 and 10.1 months of time in earning their degrees.
- More Engaged and Assimilated Adult Learners
Students are more engaged and ready for academics after the portfolio writing process. Much of the baggage a returning adult brings to the academic setting is unpacked in this reflective writing process. Students who complete a portfolio begin to make substantive connections to the academic community and gain confidence in their ability to make the successful transition to high-performing adult student as well as a competent working professional. For these 36 million or so non-traditional students, a few more credits can be a powerful motivator to persist when competing responsibilities from life intervene.
- Students With Access to PLA Take 9.9 More Credits
According to recent findings from the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning, students earning prior learning assessment credit take an average of 9.9 more course credits than their peers without access to PLA. This may seem counterintuitive but consider the fact that adults persist at much lower rates than that of their traditional counterparts. If adults are recognized for their prior knowledge, skills and abilities, they are more likely to persist, which generates more credits toward degree.
- PLA is Generally Awarded for Non-Major Credit
PLA is designed to acknowledge subject areas where adults can demonstrate mastery. While adult learners may have extensive experience in certain fields, they must engross themselves into a discipline to earn the requisite degree. Consequently, returning adults are focused on immersing themselves into the major of their choice so they can take the research to practice in their area of study. There may be an instance of gaining credit for certain areas of subject matter expertise, but this process does not circumvent the exposure and immersion into the discipline.
Students who complete the portfolio report feelings of satisfaction, pride and accomplishment, as well as the appreciation for saving time and money. A well structured PLA process changes students’ thinking not only about their past, but about the present, and their futures. The result of the added credit also provides momentum to move efficiently and effectively toward graduation in their selected major. Well planned, convenient and flexible programs offering excellent instruction and high-level student services are the most effective in their ability to successfully deliver degree-granting programs. Examining workplace experiential learning, military training, certifications, licenses, and other experiential learning through a Prior Learning Assessment portfolio can lay the groundwork for a very engaged and satisfied adult learner population. While PLA is a different approach than a traditional college class, it arrives at the same result of demonstrated mastery in a particular college-level subject area. The learning objectives are assessed, met and validated just like a standard college course taught on campus.
This process still makes people nervous. Henceforth, standardization of policy and process are a key driver in greater acceptance and understanding about PLA. If our young people are thought of as “our future” then our adult population is our present. It is important that adults with some college and no degree reach higher levels of critical thought through formal baccalaureate education. The increase in knowledge will serve as an inspiration to our future generations solidifying the value and necessity of education and enlightenment while reaching local, state and national goals of increased educational attainment.
Author Perspective: Administrator